After hitting a creative peak in the early '90s, Los Lobos settled into a decade-long groove that was perhaps a little too comfortable. The band's twelfth studio CD, The Ride, tries to shake things up a bit, and mostly succeeds by pairing the group with a string of collaborators similar to Carlos Santana's Supernatural. Only instead of the young hit-makers that propelled Santana's comeback, The Ride matches Los Lobos with early influences (Bobby Womack, Little Willie G) and long-time friends (Dave Alvin, Elvis Costello)..
These fine performances constitute the only complete cycle currently available of the 17 string quartets that pepper Villa-Lobos' entire career. The suite-like, five-movement No. 1, with its adorable "like a jumping bean" finale, is deceptive. Most of these are resoundingly neo-classical works full of acerbic harmonies and typically busy counterpoint, with few overtly nationalistic elements. Of course they sound just like Villa-Lobos, who was himself something of a "nationalistic element" when you come right down to it. The series reaches its culmination in the large works composed around the time of the Second World War, Nos. 7-11, which really do constitute landmark 20th century contributions to the form on a par with those of Shostakovich and Bartók.
This 6-CD set of "Villa-Lobos par lui-même" ("Villa Lobos performed by himself") presents the complete recordings made for Pathé between 1954 and 1958 and conducted by, or (in the case of the occasional Bachianas Brasileiras or Chôros scored for piano or duet) made under the supervision of the composer. As many of his contemporaries who made Paris their second home (Enescu comes to mind), Villa-Lobos shared his life between his native Brazil and Paris. Thus it has an important historical value.
Here's an easy call: these are the finest recordings of these works currently available. In reviewing the individual releases, I had perhaps one small reservation concerning the disc containing Bachianas Brasileiras No. 4, but this evaporates in the face of the achievement as a whole. Both cycles, the Bachianas Brasileiras and the Choros, constitute two of the most original, colorful, and enjoyable collections of works by any 20th-century composer. They belong in every serious record collection, and they have never been so consistently well performed and recorded. At last, Villa-Lobos' compatriots have managed to do his quirky genius full justice. The excellent disc of solo guitar music makes a fine and thoughtful bonus, and at seven discs for the price of three, you'd have to be insane not to grab this set immediately.
These three magnificent works belong in the repertoire of cellists everywhere. They are full of Villa-Lobos’ signature exotic instrumental textures, folk-like melodies, and abundant invention. They are also harder than hell to play, and difficult to balance. Villa-Lobos was a cellist himself, and loved the instrument’s low, dark register. Penetrating his dense orchestration without making the instrument sound like a dying cow is just one of the many challenges facing cellists attempting to come to grips with this marvelously expressive music, though recordings can solve this problem with sensitive microphone placement. Antonio Meneses understands both the music and its performance problems, and his lower register manages to sound gruff without undue signs of bovine distress. He’s helped by some very sensitive accompaniments; Pérez projects the music’s lush timbres without laying it on too thick.